Interview by Brenna McDermot (@letterstowomen)
2010 UW Oshkosh and journalism department alumna Mariah Haberman is the host and brand manager of Discover Wisconsin, the nation’s oldest-running travel TV show. After graduation Haberman went on to do agency and consulting work and win the title Miss Wisconsin Central 2012.
When you were in school, did you know that you wanted to work in television? What was your ultimate goal?
My 6th grade career report was about the role of an anchorwoman. So yes, there was always some sort of desire to get into television but by the time high school rolled around, I decided TV was not a realistic career path. I was instead swayed by the challenging, fascinating and exciting world that is PR and marketing.
But during my senior year of college, I somehow found myself on stage competing in the Miss Oshkosh 2010 pageant. This experience sparked a three-year journey to the Miss Wisconsin competition, which ultimately reignited my desire to pursue some sort of public position after all.
My career goal back then was to either become editor-in-chief of a woman’s magazine or owner of my own PR firm. I still think both would make for a kickass career but I see myself heading in a slightly different direction these days.
When you were a student at UW Oshkosh, what did you do outside of class in order to prepare you for your career? Did you take any radio-TV-film classes or participate in Titan TV?
I didn’t take any radio-TV-film classes or partake in Titan TV but boy, I wish I had—especially considering UW-Oshkosh has a renowned RTF program. I was heavily focused on the journalism side, which I also really loved.
As far as outside involvement, my immersion in the Miss Wisconsin program absolutely prepared me for what I do today but at the time, I didn’t realize it was laying the groundwork for what I now do. Of course, my internships also each played a key role on the marketing side of my position.
What were some of your favorite and most useful classes at UW Oshkosh?
Every journalism class! The UW-Oshkosh J-department does an excellent job arming its students with a solid foundation, particularly so in writing and AP style. I’m always surprised by the number of professionals I encounter today who want so badly to “find the story”…but don’t have the critical writing skills to tell it—and that’s a tragedy for anyone who considers themselves a storyteller, whether they work in journalism, marketing, television or the like.
A few journalism teachers who come to mind include Sara Steffes Hansen. Dr. Julie Henderson, Dana Baumgart, Mike Cowling, Miles Maguire and Barb Benish, among others!
I also took an intro history class when I was a sophomore that left a pretty big impression on me. I had a fabulously passionate professor (Stephen Kercher), who helped me appreciate the excitement in history and politics.
What skills do you suggest students who want to go into journalism or public relations work on honing the most while they are in school?
Write, write, write! Try all different styles of writing: fiction, non-fiction, headline writing, social media, blogging, etc. Then take the initiative to ask others for feedback on your writing. You should always want to grow and that should be the case for anyone at any experience level in any industry.
What was it like transitioning from student to public relations professional? How did you get your first job after graduation?
Well, I still consider myself a student in so many ways but my first job out of college was a temporary position as a PR & Social Media Assistant at a firm in Chicago called Carol Fox & Associates. This company specializes in entertainment and the arts, so when I showed my interviewers the campaign portfolio I worked on as a senior for our “client,” the Grand Opera House, I could tell they were impressed. Still, I didn’t get an offer right away…I had to follow up a few times to make sure they remembered meeting me and they finally invited me to work there from September until December in 2010.
Was working in an agency what you expected it to be like?
My very first boss at Carol Fox & Associates made a comment to me that she didn’t think I was cut out for agency work. This stung but what I knew at the time (and she clearly didn’t) was that I just wasn’t cut out for that particular agency. So what I realized straight out of the UWO gates was that every agency is unique and like any career really, it may take a few sloppy attempts before you find the perfect fit.
I consulted shortly after leaving CF&A and later, accepted a position at another agency – this time in downtown Madison at a firm called Hiebing. When I dreamt of the “agency world” as a college kid, I thought of a place like Hiebing, where you may have smart, demanding clients but clever and creative colleagues and inspiring leaders.
Today, I work at Discover Mediaworks in Madison, which is part agency, part production firm. I get challenging work every day and I also get to spend my time with a super awesome team. (Confession: That is one aspect I’ll say I didn’t think much about back in college: the importance of having wonderful colleagues. You can have the most impressive clients and interesting work, but if your co-workers are lame, you’ll be miserable. #Fact.)
Why did you decide to do your own consulting, and why did you stop?
I wish I could tell you that after leaving CF&A in Chicago, I was inundated with clients begging to work with me but…ah, not so. Although I knew I wasn’t meant to work at CF&A long-term, I was hoping they’d hire me because, well…because I didn’t have a back-up plan come December. But a full-time job offer never came my way and so, I moved back to Madison and did what any desperate, jobless 23-year-old would do (?) – I scoured Craigslist for clients. Yep. I met with realtors, construction managers, even an owner of a wine shop start-up. It was random and weird but I was ambitious and open-minded and optimistic.
Was it ideal? No. Not in the slightest. I hardly made any money and it felt like I was hustling for nothing. I was living in my aunt’s spare bedroom. And the whole “CEO of my own PR firm” thing sure didn’t feel like how I dreamt it would. But I learned so much and I think it helped me look pretty decent when I went to apply at my next employer (Hiebing), where they happened to be searching for an ambitious account coordinator for their PR team.
My main takeaway during these first couple of years was probably: “This career thing is messy, even downright ugly at times but, if I stick it out, someone will notice my awesomeness! (Right!?).” (ßTotal Millennial ‘tude)
Did you enjoy working for yourself?
Yes and no. The pay was no bueno. But I loved the pressure of having the success of someone else’s marketing efforts on my shoulders—so in a way, it confirmed that I was in the right field. Freelancing may not have been my first choice but looking back, I’m proud that I had the gumption to make up my own job when 2010 had practically nothing to offer college grads like me; I was as determined as I was inexperienced.
What were the challenges of having your own consulting business?
You have to have a ton of self-motivation and a fair amount of confidence. The motivation part, I had down. Consulting definitely tested my self-confidence but lucky for me, UW-Oshkosh granted me a strong background in PR and my pageant days meant I was generally unintimidated by the folks who sat across from me at meetings—no matter how brilliant or smart they were. (If you can answer, “What are the top three biggest threats facing our government today?” in 20 seconds in front of a pageant panel of five distinguished strangers than you can sure as heck spitball marketing ideas with some realtors.)
And as I previously mentioned, I certainly didn’t make millions while consulting but I consider my freelancing gig an investment as I picked up invaluable lessons such as the importance of coming prepared, being open-minded, doing my homework and digging deep to get the job done right.
How did you get your job at Discover Wisconsin?
While I held my first and only pageant title, Miss Wisconsin Central 2012, I reached out to someone I kinda, sorta knew who worked at Discover Mediaworks, the production company that produces Discover Wisconsin. I asked him if the team would be willing to let me guest host one episode. He didn’t say yes, but he didn’t say no and he did promise to keep in touch and run my idea past the managing director “when the time was right.” I remained optimistic. I also would remain in touch with him – sending messages here and there on Facebook to make sure he knew I was still interested in meeting their team and discussing the possibility of guest hosting a show.
They finally invited me in to “audition.” I should have been pretty darn nervous as I’ve never done any sort of audition in my life – and truthfully, I didn’t think it went all that well. They were originally only going to offer new talent part-time positions as ‘field hosts.’ They ended up offering me a full-time job as the lead host and marketing strategist. It’s been quite the adventure ever since!
What are your responsibilities at Discover Wisconsin?
As a host, I perform voiceovers, improv and scripted material, conduct interviews, dress up in weird costumes, waterski behind planes, eat lots of cheese curds, ATV in -30 degree weather, etc. etc.
As the brand manager, I take part in tradeshows, premiere parties, client meetings and handle media relations and social media efforts. I oversee our radio program, marketing materials and scriptwriting.
Would you consider your job at Discover Wisconsin a public relations position?
In part, yes. My job is very strange. I don’t really have a lane. But I tend to get bored easily so this position suits me well!
What can a journalism student do to make him or herself a good candidate for television?
Be eager to learn…forever. You want to learn about other people and you should want to learn about yourself, too. I think sometimes on-camera folks get a weird rap because of the vanity aspect, but I wish I could eloquently describe to others how much I’ve learned about myself by watching what I do and say on camera. It’s so not about whether my hair looks decent but instead about the way I communicate to others and how they communicate back. It’s fascinating and surprising and that is one of the thrills of getting to work on camera.
What role has networking played in your professional career?
If I didn’t make a point to reach out to a Facebook acquaintance I “kinda, sorta knew,” I would not have this job. (And now I consider that guy a good friend of mine – bonus!) Networking is invaluable. I’d say even more generally, just putting yourself out there and not being afraid to say hello to someone or being open to meeting up with someone over coffee is a good thing – you just never know what could come of it.
What have you found is the best way to network with the right people not just a lot of people?
Social media. I’m honestly not the biggest fan of networking events because as your question points out: You do tend to meet a crazy amount of people—and not always the “right people.” With social media, it’s easier to strike a quick, casual conversation with the “right people.”
Is social media an important part of your career? If so, how do you use it to enhance your career? Does someone REALLY need to be active on most platforms?
Social media is a huge part of my career, both for the Discover Wisconsin brand, but also for me as a public figure. I love giving fans a peek behind the “curtain”. That’s also the place I most often receive feedback from viewers. And, when I started, I relied on social media to learn about the state of Wisconsin very quickly. I get inundated with travel recommendations and since I’m still a relative newbie in regard to being an “expert on all things Wisconsin,” I do rely on social media to get answers and ideas from viewers.
I don’t know if I would say someone who wants to be in television absolutely needs to be active on most platforms; I’d say do what you love. For me personally, I have fun on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat so those are the channels I focus my efforts on. For the Discover Wisconsin brand, it’s Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, YouTube and our blog.
It is often said that today’s job seekers need to brand themselves. How did you go about doing that successfully?
I’m sure that’s true but there is something about calculatingly branding oneself that rubs me the wrong way. Getting your name out there and working hard to differentiate yourself from the competition? Yes and yessss. I suppose that is part of personal branding, but my advice would be to make sure you’re emphasizing your strongest traits while working on your weaknesses. Obviously, don’t shout your weaknesses from the rooftop but take active steps to improve on your flaws – without being disingenuous on- or offline.
For many this is a time of self-discovery, so they may not know exactly what they want their brand is or exactly what they want to do. What advice can you give to people like this?
I think the journey to self-discovery involves as many experiences as possible. I love new and different. Surround yourself with people who maybe have very different interests and take up experiences that you normally wouldn’t.
And don’t lose your authenticity along the way. That’s key.
Current students are mostly used to working with people their own age. Is working with people from all generations different? Are there different ways to work with each?
Yes, working with folks from different generations is different – but it’s also better. A healthy work culture is a diverse one. I love learning things from people younger than me and people older than me; people from completely different professional backgrounds and people who worked in similar fields. Humans are generally inclined to connect with people who are most like them, but I would challenge anyone reading this to strike up a conversation with whoever seems the most unlike them at work or in the classroom. I’ll think you’ll be surprised at what you might learn.
General rule of thumb: Approach every work relationship with the “What can I learn from this person?” sort of attitude. Everyone wants to play teacher. Be the student.
With all life transitions comes fear: fear of moving, fear of not finding a job, fear of not being prepared, fear of the unknown, etc. What kind of fear did you experience as a student or as a professional and how did you overcome it?
I’ve experienced all kinds of fear and I’ve come to realize fear is an amazing thing. Use it to your advantage and do not let it cripple you. Overcoming fear is actually quite simple: You just barrel through it. You say yes to every opportunity you possibly can. So when you’re asked to give a presentation at the local boys and girls club, say yes. Better yet, you proactively reach out to the boys and girls club to ask if they’ll let you come in. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve introduced myself to an organization and asked if they’d allow me to come in to speak about x, y or z. I do that less and less these days but in my first couple years as I was trying to develop my public speaking skills, you can bet that I was putting myself out there as much as I could. At the risk of sounding a bit corny, it really does come down to facing fear and saying, “Watch me shine.”
Is there anything else I should know about you or your career that I didn’t ask?
I believe my career started long before college graduation. People tend to have this weird sort of notion that the “real world” begins when that diploma is handed to you. This is garbage. I’ve had a lot of crazy, part-time and/or temporary odd jobs that played a role in my profession today – from standing on the line at Oscar Mayer to bartending in Oshkosh to being a ring girl at a handful of MMA fights. I always felt a bit self-conscious that I wasn’t one of those college students who worked at the same grocery store for eight years but every single weird, odd job I had made me a bit sharper, a bit more sagacious and a quick(er) study.
My point in sharing this is to reiterate the advantage of partaking in as many varied experiences as possible. It doesn’t need to be in the form of work but just know that the more people you meet, positions you take in and organizations you learn about, the better you’ll get at jumping head first into new experiences sans trepidation.